The Senate blocked a Republican drive Monday to terminate federal funds for Planned Parenthood, setting the stage for the GOP to try again this fall amid higher stakes — a potential government shutdown that could echo into next year's presidential and congressional elections.
The derailed legislation was the Republican response to videos, recorded secretly by anti-abortion activists, showing Planned Parenthood officials dispassionately discussing how they sometimes provide medical researchers with tissue from aborted fetuses. Those videos have led conservatives to accuse the group of illegally selling the organs for profit — strongly denied by Planned Parenthood — and inserted abortion and women's health into the mix of issues to be argued in the 2016 campaign.
Monday's mostly party-line vote was 53-46 to halt Democratic delays aimed at derailing the bill, seven short of the 60 votes the Republicans needed. Even so, the GOP is hoping to reap political gains because the videos have ignited the party's core conservative, anti-abortion voters.
The fight is already creating heated talking points for Republican presidential candidates, who convene Thursday for their first debate of the 2016 campaign. Several of the, including Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky, are calling for Congress to end Planned Parenthood's federal payments.
In the longer term, GOP leaders are hoping that three congressional committees' investigations, plus probes in several states and the expected release of additional videos, will produce evidence of Planned Parenthood wrongdoing and make it harder for Democrats to defend the organization. Planned Parenthood provides contraception, testing for sexually transmitted diseases and abortions in clinics from coast to coast.
Democrats' were largely muted when the videos were first distributed, but their defense of Planned Parenthood has grown more robust in recent days. During Monday's debate, they sounded a theme they have employed in recent elections, characterizing the GOP drive as an assault on health care for women.
"It's our obligation to protect our wives, our sisters, our daughters, our granddaughters" from the GOP's "absurd policies," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "The Republican Party has lost its moral compass."
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Democrats should not protect Planned Parenthood's federal funds "just to protect some political group," an apparent reference to the organization's one-sided campaign contributions to Democratic candidates.
Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa said, "The American taxpayer should not be asked to fund an organization like Planned Parenthood that has shown a sheer disdain for human dignity and complete disregard for women and their babies."
Ernst sponsored the measure as party leaders sought ways to blunt Democratic charges of GOP insensitivity to women.
The only senators to cross party lines were Democrats Joe Donnelly of Indiana and Joe Manchin of West Virginia, and Illinois Republican Mark Kirk, who faces a tough re-election fight next year. McConnell joined Democrats in voting to block the bill, a procedural move that allows him to force a fresh vote later. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a presidential candidate, was in New Hampshire and missed the vote.
The anti-abortion Center for Medical Progress has so far released four videos in which people posing as representatives of a company that purchases fetal tissue converse with Planned Parenthood officials. The videos have been especially controversial because of the casual descriptions by the Planned Parenthood officials of the abortion procedures they use to obtain tissue, and because some of the videos show close-ups of fetal organs in laboratories.
The center and some of its GOP supporters have said the videos show that Planned Parenthood sells the tissue for profit, which is illegal under federal law.
Planned Parenthood says the videos are selectively edited and that the organization only recovers costs of the procedures — which is legal — and only gives the tissue to researchers with a mother's advance consent and in fewer than five states.
Stung by past government shutdowns that voters have blamed on Republicans, GOP leaders have shown no interest in another one this fall. Federal agencies run out of money on Oct. 1, and Congress is tasked with passing legislation by then temporarily keeping the doors open until lawmakers and President Barack Obama can reach a longer-term agreement.
But it could be challenging for those Republican leaders to control their most conservative lawmakers, who are urged on by the party's anti-abortion activists. Rep. Mick Mulvaney, R-S.C., has said he expects to get several dozen signatures on a letter opposing any spending bill containing money for Planned Parenthood, and some GOP senators, including Cruz, Paul and others, have voiced similar sentiments.
The Republican measure calls for funneling Planned Parenthood's federal dollars to other providers of health care to women, including hospitals, state and local agencies and federally financed community health centers.
Republicans say that transfer would enable women to continue receiving the health care they need because Planned Parenthood's nearly 700 clinics are far outnumbered by other providers.
Planned Parenthood and Democrats contest that. They say many of the organization's centers are in areas with few alternatives for reproductive health care or for other services for the low-income women who comprise a majority of its clients.
Planned Parenthood receives more than $500 million yearly in government funds — including state payments — more than one-third of its annual $1.3 billion in revenue. Its annual report says it provides services for 2.7 million people annually, mostly women, with abortions accounting for 3 percent.
By law, federal funds are already barred from being used for abortions except for cases of incest, rape or when a woman's life is in danger.